CELTIC’S Adam Matthews didn’t watch on television as Aberdeen claimed the League Cup at his club’s stadium on Sunday. He will, though, be tuning in this evening as the last 16 stage of the Champions League reaches its conclusion.
In all that there might be a comment on where the focus lies for those residing with Scotland’s leading side.
A victory at home to St Mirren on Saturday would move Celtic to within two wins of a third consecutive title. Or, to put it another way, put them closer to rubber-stamping their position as the country’s representatives in the Champions League qualifiers next season – an outcome assured before a ball was kicked this season owing to their sole superpower status in our game.
Matthews dutifully stated it was “one game at a time” as far as casting his mind forward was concerned. Yet, the Welshman could not help become a whole lot more animated when representing Celtic in a third straight group campaign in Europe’s premier club competition became the discussion point, and he admitted the prospect of a clash against Real Madrid and his international team-mate Gareth Bale deeper into the competition particularly excites him.
These days, with their title hegemony assuming a permanence, Celtic’s campaigns can be divided into two halves: the first is consumed by reaching and competing in the Champions League, with the second filled by counting down the days till they can reach and compete in the tournament all over again.
Matthews considers the attractions of the competition irresistible. And, with admirable candour, the 22-year-old admitted he thought its delicacies were too rich to sample personally. “I’ve achieved more than I ever thought I would in football already,” he said. “If I’m being honest, when I was younger I never thought I would even play in the Champions League – and now I’ve got two campaigns under my belt. I will be watching it this week because it’s the best club tournament in the world. Even if you’re not in it, every footballer watches it. I’m looking forward to seeing who gets through, who wins it.
“When you play in it, you’ve got to enjoy it, embrace it, not be too nervous. You are playing against the best players, so you can only get better from the experience. We played Barcelona two seasons in a row and, in three out of the four games, we did really well. Obviously we didn’t do ourselves justice in the last game [in losing 6-1 in the Nou Camp]. But there aren’t many teams who can say they’ve beaten Barca, and we have. Taking on the likes of [Lionel] Messi and [Andres] Iniesta has to improve you as a player.
“I do see that level of football as the very pinnacle. I think every footballer who has sampled the Champions League will tell you they want to taste it every season. We were disappointed with where we finished this season [in being bottom of our group] but, last season, getting to the last 16 was a massive achievement. That has to be our goal next season, to get to the group stages and then progress.”
Just how difficult it is to progress was demonstrated by the manner in which Barcelona bounced out Manchester City in the first knock-out stage last week. It left the current English champions with an identical record to Celtic across the past two seasons, with one crucial difference.
“They’ve spent over £200 million and didn’t win a game in their first Champions League campaign,” Matthews said. “So it just shows how well we did in my first campaign. It’s definitely the toughest competition going, but it’s also the most enjoyable. I think every footballer would say that. Man City lost to Barca, too. Barca are one of the best teams ever, they keep the ball and get you running around. We managed to stay tight and catch them on the break when we beat them [in December 2012], but they’ve been the toughest games I’ve faced, every time we’ve played them.”
Should Celtic negotiate the three qualifying rounds next season – in which will play the home games of late July and early August at Murrayfield because Celtic Park will be out of commission owing to the Commonwealth games – it could get tougher for Matthews. Real Madrid, current employers of his friend Bale, represent the only European powerhouse Celtic have not faced in the competition across the past 12 years.
“I do keep in touch with Gareth, they’ve got a great team there, all hitting top form and they’ve got a great chance of winning this year,” the Celtic defender said.
“I speak to him now and again. I think he’s enjoying it out there. Who wouldn’t? I don’t think I’d enjoy playing against him. I’ve never played against him in a proper game, only in training, and that’s hard enough. Obviously it would be great to play against Real Madrid, as tough a game as there is. You always want to play against the best players in the world and, right now, Gareth is right up there. If I do get the chance to play against him, I’ll do my best... and maybe hope he’s on the opposite wing!”